Scientific Self-Expression: How My Journey Led to My Research Aspirations

By: Ximena Leon

My journey towards scientific research has never been a clear path. I was introduced to scientific research my freshman year of college, merely three years ago. I was invited to join an Introduction to Biology Research course at my community college taught by Dr. Elvira Eivazova. I was enrolled in the Pre-Health Professions Associate of Science degree track, so I figured it would be a good idea to get involved in research, even though I did not really know what research was exactly. At the time, I was not completely satisfied with pursuing a career in medicine, but I decided to continue working towards that path until I figured out what I really wanted to do. My main goal has always been to make a significant impact on others through whatever career I chose to pursue, so I decided to just follow my heart with the opportunities that came my way. My professor invited me to join her as a TA for a week-long HHMI SEA-PHAGES training workshop where we learned scientific research pedagogy and carried out isolation and characterization of bacteriophages. As the year went on and I worked as a Biology Research TA, I began realizing how much I loved individual aspects of research—mentoring students, working in the lab, writing papers, presenting research, thinking critically, and the list goes on. Still, I did not want to let go of the career path that I had been set on for so long, so I considered earning an M.D./Ph.D. I started seeking out summer research internships and came across the AspirnautTM program at Vanderbilt University, a program that Dr. Eivazova also recommended for me. It was that summer where my mind was changed. After working under the mentorship of Dr. Elena Pokidysheva and being exposed to a holistic approach in research, I knew that I wanted to incorporate scientific research into whatever career path I chose. Towards the end of the program, I decided to meet with Dr. Elizabeth Bowman, who has now become one of my biggest mentors. She explained to me everything about research and graduate school, and I was able to meet with Ph.D. and M.D./Ph.D. students to learn more about the individual career paths. All my interests, passions, and goals lined up with a career in scientific research. I knew then and there that I would pursue a Ph.D. I got involved in research at my new university with my mentor, Dr. Jose Barbosa, and I began speaking to students about getting involved in undergraduate research, became President of my university’s Biology Honor Society, and, now, I am a research mentor for a high school student who is pursuing a career in medicine.  

So where does self-expression in scientific research come about in my scientific journey?

I am able to express myself through Molecular and Cellular Biology research, but where my biggest passion in scientific research lies is in mentoring students. My research mentors, Dr. Eivazova, Dr. Pokidysheva, Dr. Bowman, and Dr. Barbosa were the mentors I needed to navigate my future in science. I saw their passions for scientific research and their hearts for mentoring students, and I found that I wanted to impact students just as they had impacted me. As a student from both an underrepresented and disadvantaged background who did not know a career in scientific research was an attainable profession, I have found it incredibly important to mentor students who may otherwise never get exposed to scientific research. I want to make sure that I can give students, like me, an equal opportunity to consider and experience a career in scientific research through mentorship programs and internship programs for high school and undergraduate students from underrepresented and/or disadvantaged backgrounds. Though I have mastered many skills in the laboratory, I hope to learn more about skills in scientific communication that will help me in my own research, presentations, teaching, mentoring, and reaching audiences beyond the scientific community. The PAECER program has allowed me to gain extensive knowledge on equity, equality, and scientific communication that I will continue to learn more about to establish my future goals of impacting science and future scientists.

What I have learned along this journey is that everything falls into place if you work hard and follow your heart.

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